Monday 30 May 2016

A Young Cinephile's Diary - Shaun Heenan discovers Louis Malle's Au Revoir Les Enfants, Les Amants & My Dinner with Andre

Louis Malle
Earlier this year I wrote on this site about having loved Atlantic City (Louis Malle, Canada/France, 1980), and mentioned that I’d like to see some more films by the director. Fandor gave me a great chance to do that this week, as their weekly Criterion selection featured no fewer than ten of Malle’s features. This included two I’d already seen (1960’s Zazie dans le Métro and 1971’s Murmur of the Heart) and one I own on DVD but have not watched (1957’s Elevator to the Gallows). I found time this week to watch three of the remaining films, and mostly enjoyed myself doing so.

To begin, I jumped straight to the most famous film on the list, Au revoir les enfants (Louis Malle, France/West Germany, 1987), which tells the wartime story of children at a boarding school in occupied France. It is not especially surprising to discover Malle’s film is largely autobiographical, since he shows such an understanding, not just of the mechanics of the school itself, but of the cliques and relationships of the boys who live there. The characters discuss allegiances and collaboration on a theoretical level, but the danger of the invasion only becomes clear to the main character Julien (Garspard Manesse) when he realises his friend Jean (Raphaël Fejtö) is a Jew in hiding.
The subculture presented here is fully realised and wholly believable. The boys feel like real people with hopes and fears, and when some of those fears come to pass, it feels crushing, since we’ve gotten to know the children so well. As the title suggests, this is Malle’s ode to the innocent childhood stolen from him, and from a whole generation, during World War II. It is deeply moving. This is a marvelous film, worthy of its great reputation.

The is also a great deal of sadness and beauty in Malle’s earlier film The Lovers (Louis Malle, France, 1958). The film follows a woman named Jeanne (Jeanne Moreau) who has grown bored of her life, and particularly of her husband. She makes frequent trips from their countryside house to Paris, where she is having a long-term affair with a polo player. Her husband knows, or at least suspects, and invites the man, along with another of Jeanne’s friends, to dinner. On the way to this dinner Jeanne meets another man, and also begins to fall for him.

I never got the impression Jeanne cared for either of the new men specifically. Rather, she’s falling in love with the idea of escaping and finding something, anything, new. I’m not even sure she convinces herself. The night she spends in and around her house with one of these men is a great feat of cinematography, and the best scene in the movie. The ambiguity of her emotions throughout adds a great deal of depth to what could have been a simple story. It’s a great performance, and another strong work from Malle, who was just 25 when he made it.

It shocks me to learn that The Lovers was the subject of an obscenity trial in the United States, where it was eventually cleared of the charge that the film (which contains a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it amount of nudity) counted as ‘hardcore pornography’. One Justice famously wrote about the definition of this term, “I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”

I understand that my opinion on the third and final film is simplistic, and will surely make me look like a Philistine. That said, My Dinner with Andre (Louis Malle, USA, 1981) is one of the dullest films I have ever seen. I’ve heard tales of its greatness for at least a decade, from people I trust very much. I understand academically why the film’s format is interesting, but it did absolutely nothing for me. The film takes the form of a single two-hour dinner conversation between the actors Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory, playing fictionalised versions of themselves. They speak briefly about theatre and art before diving headfirst into (at least) a full hour of rambling about Andre Gregory’s experiences as a tourist dabbling in tribal mysticism around the world. He speaks at incredible length with great sincerity about the way it helped him discover secret truths about life. All I could do was roll my eyes and try not to fall asleep. Wallace Shawn eventually calls him out on his nonsense, but by that time the audience has already had to sit there and listen to it for the full length of a film.

If this was a real dinner I had been tricked into attending, I would have stood up and left. I hated this movie.

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